Behind the scenes at AMNH

I will most likely never see the great majority of the planet’s 10,000 plus bird species, but I’m fine with that, since I’m not a competitive birder. I am, however, not happy about missing those species native to the East Coast that were exterminated long before I showed up: heath hen, Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon. And a little further afield, the Eskimo curlew and Ivory billed woodpecker (both have partisans who believe that they are not, in fact, gone, so perhaps…). The best any of us can do now is look at the stuffed ones.
This week, I got to go behind the scenes of the ornithology department at the American Museum of Natural History. Woo-woo!

As you may know, museums don’t — can’t — display the vast majority of their holdings, and the great old pile that is AMNH is no exception. There are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of objects in storage there. This was my second time being shown around in natural history’s storehouse. Back in the mid-1990s, I got to go up into AMNH’s attic, which was filled with things that wouldn’t fit in most shelving units: a graveyard of whale and elephant bones – talk about a night at the museum! – and the life-size model heads of dozens of different “races” of Man. Oops! Oh, well, everybody has something embarrassing in their closet; I’ve thought since that an exhibit on the museum’s (and society’s) differing views on, and constructions of, that too-much freighted category “race” could be most enlightening. But I digress, as I often do.
There are well over 800, 000 bird skins in the museum. A “skin” in this case also obviously means the feathers. Unlike the taxidermy specimens of rare and extinct birds seen in the first photo, skins are not particularly life-like and aren’t intended to be. The eyes don’t preserve, hence the zombie look. These are research objects, mostly for taxonomic purposes, but DNA samples can also be taken from them — from the skins’ foot pads. The holdings include more than 6000 type specimens, that is, the actual skin that was used to describe the bird scientifically, as well as other ornithological objects like eggs, skeletons, nests, and tissue samples.
Our guide, Mary LeCroy, was employed for many years at the museum and now continues after her retirement to work on identifying the type specimens. Her specialty are the birds of paradise, so we saw a number of these absurdly gorgeous — even flat, preserved, dead — creatures.
It was quite an experience, although the smell of preservatives was heady.

Update: AMNH ornithologist Paul Sweet gives a short tour of the facility.

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7 Responses to “Behind the scenes at AMNH”


  1. 1 TGIQ November 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Very cool…it’s mind-boggling what lies in storage behind the scenes of a natural history museum. I’ve toured the vaults of our local collection, and it’s rather like being a kid in an incredibly awesome and overwhelmingly large candy store!

  2. 2 amarilla November 14, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    I grew up around drawers like these at the Smithsonian. Will never forget that suffocating sweet smell.

  3. 3 mthew November 15, 2010 at 11:52 am

    That’s it exactly: a sickly sweet candy store.


  1. 1 Tweets that mention Behind the scenes at AMNH « Backyard and Beyond -- Topsy.com Trackback on November 14, 2010 at 9:41 am
  2. 2 Inside the AMNH Collections: Ornithology Trackback on November 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm
  3. 3 Museum of Extinct Birds « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on December 16, 2011 at 8:39 am
  4. 4 Two Habitats « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on January 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm

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